Hacking is a great fantasy skill

In real baseball, hacking is a bad skill to have. Hackers are generally worse baseball players (save for the lucky few, like Josh Hamilton) who carry low on-base percentages and diminished offensive value.

But fantasy baseball is called “fantasy” for a reason. We don’t care about real-life production. Sure, it’s nice to say that your team is full of .400 OBP guys, but Daric Barton’s .393 OBP in 2010 was worthless to virtually all of you—even if you were in an OBP league.

This time of year, especially, its important to keep this in mind. Every spring, it seems like there are a dozen or so players who are set for a “big year” because they’ve revamped their plate approach and are now more disciplined hitters. While this will make them better real-life players, it isn’t guaranteed to make them better fantasy players.

In fact, improved plate discipline can actually hurt your player’s value—significantly. I repeat: in fantasy, patience is NOT a virtue.

Take talented hacker Josh Hamilton for example.

Going in the third to fourth round in mixed leagues, Hamilton never gets enough credit for how much he hacks—and how much it helps his counting stats, batting average, and your team.

A prolific free-swinger, in 2011, he had the fourth highest swing percentage (57.1 percent), 11th highest O-Swing percentage (41.0 percent), and the highest Z-Swing percentage in the league (81.7 percent).

Regressing Hamilton’s plate discipline characteristics and batted ball profile, the outfielder carried an expected line of .288/.357/.526 with 28 home runs over 650 plate appearances in 2011.

While conventional wisdom states that he would be more valuable if he could tone down that approach and get more selective, the opposite is true. If Hamilton were to instead adopt merely league average discipline at the plate (30.6 O-Swing percentage and 65.0 Z-Swing percentage), he would carry an expected .269/.376/.508 line with just 24.5 home runs. That’s a drop of 3.5 home runs and almost 20 points in batting average.

Sure, his OBP improves and his walk rate goes up by almost five percent (7.0 percent to 11.8 percent), but that doesn’t matter in fantasy. Though he will earn a few extra runs from the OBP, that will be completely washed out—and then some—with the drop in home runs and batting average… and RBI as well.

Plugging the two Josh Hamiltons into the cleanup slot in Texas’ 2011 lineup, we regress the following overall lines:

Hacking Josh Hamilton: 98.5 R, 28.0 HR, 106.5 RBI, 9.5 SB, .2877 AVG
Disciplined Josh Hamilton: 101.5R, 24.5 HR, 93.7 RBI, 9.5 SB, .2694 AVG

Valuewise, these are two vastly different players. Hamilton the Hacker grades out at 4.77 points above average (12-team leagues) at FantasyPlayerRater.com, while Hamilton the Patient is worth 2.90 points. Both players are excellent, but that two-point difference is about the same as moving from Justin Upton (5.23 points as per Rotochamp projections) to Hunter Pence (3.35 points as per Rotochamp).

So, to all fantasy players, I say this:

LET ‘EM HACK!

Robinson Cano, Adrian Gonzalez, CarGo, Eric Hosmer, Ichiro, Mark Trumbo, Brandon Phillips, and anyone else with those care-free, free-swinging ways…

The Pyramid Rating System’s All-Time Pittsburgh Pirates
Though there's one key player missing, this squad rosters six Hall of Famers.

LET THEM HACK!

Final Note:

Before I ignite the fury of commenters everywhere, I would like to lay down one caveat: yes, it is a reasonable assumption that improved pitch selectivity will lead to a more efficient player—i.e. higher BABIP and higher HR/FB, which will even out the fewer balls in play.

However, for Hamilton to reach 28 home runs with his new approach, he would have to raise his HR/FB ratio from 16.4 percent to 19.3 percent—a huge gain. To get the batting average back, he would have to gain 40 points on his BABIP. Those are colossal improvements. And that doesn’t take into account that he may merely lose out on power or BABIP because he’s moving away from his natural tendencies and becoming a less aggressive hitter.

So, if your favorite manager starts talking about improve plate discipline leading to a breakout season for one of your players, think again—and get ready to use it against your competition.


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tito
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tito

What’s your take on Heyward and the Braves comments that they want him to be more aggressive at the plate this year? Do you see this as a strategy that might get Heyward over the hump or is it trying to turn him into a player he might not be?

Mike Silver
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Mike Silver

I’d guess that they’re trying to get him over the hump, but I’ve never done an in-depth analysis of Heyward’s PitchFX profile so its tough to say exactly what is going on.

From a fantasy perspective, though, I love hearing it!

Mark Himmelstein
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Mark Himmelstein
Interesting. I was figuring this was mostly going to be largely about the increased weight of batting average, but the HR/FB jump is a great point I hadn’t considered. But isn’t the inverse of the point about BABIP and HR/FB gains coming from improved discipline true too—that most hitters who hack and expand their zone have lower BABIPs and HR/FBs? My point being that you’re not looking for negative trends in O-Swing and BB%, you’re looking for guys who have high BABIPs and HR/FBs, and that a low BB% can be a positive for fantasy players who already do those… Read more »
Mike Silver
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Mike Silver

If I read your comment correctly, that was the caveat in the final paragraphs—he’d have to substantially raise his BABIP and HR/FB to accommodate the decreased balls in play.

The two regressed lines for Josh Hamilton assumed the same HR/FB and BABIP so that the comparison could be made.

I agree, it is perfectly reasonable to assume a rise in BABIP and HR/FB due to improved plate discipline. However, you have to wonder whether they could actually improve that much.

Mark Himmelstein
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Mark Himmelstein
I’m not saying its a bad thing that Josh Hamilton is a hacker, in fact I’m agreeing that its a good thing. What I am saying is that it could be a bad thing if someone like Prince Fielder or Evan Longoria suddenly transformed into a hacker, and I think I missed the important point in my initial comment. The key is that guys like Hamilton and Sandoval not only maintain a combo of a high O-Swing%, low BB%, high BABIP, and high HR/FB, but they also maintain good Contact%, SwStrike%, and K%. That’s really where the selection bias is… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
I’ve thought about this without doing much actual research, and my thoughts points toward player skill sets being really important. For example, being a hacker is at least potentially an advantage if you can still maintain a high batting average. …But, how do we know the reverse side of the hypothetical. I have my own thoughts for different players. Ichiro, for example, keep hacking. His biggest value is BA (when he’s good) and the more weight that has, the better. Also, he’s not going to hit for a lot of power anyway and his OBP is high enough, buoyed by… Read more »
Mike Silver
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Mike Silver
Love the debate fellas! Mark, funny you brought up Prince Fielder. This past season he actually started hacking a lot more (I know this example off-hand because he’s been on my team every season for what feels like the last 5 years). His O-Swing went up almost 3 points—at 31.1%, that was his highest since his rookie season. He also had the lowest Z-Swing rate of his career. For Fielder, it worked out. Both his O- and Z-Contact rates were the highest of his career and his K-rate was a career low by about 2.5 percent. His batting average tied… Read more »
Mark Himmelstein
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Mark Himmelstein
Definitely an interesting debate, and interesting point on Fielder. Two points on him in particular: 1. There’s a discrepancy between his Pitch F/X O-Swing% and his standard O-Swing%. According to the former, the mark has been incredibly stable over his career. 2. The lowest O-Swing% of his career came in 2009, which was the year he had 46 HR and 140 RBIs. Of course, this could partly be the long term interaction between batter and pitcher—pitchers started avoiding Fielders “strong zones” and in response he started targeting different zones, which after some adjustment paid off. Or it could just be… Read more »
Mike Silver
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Mike Silver

Using PitchFX plate discipline characteristics, you’re correct. I have been using the non-PitchFX plate discipline characteristics due to the fact that I last updated my regression model last seaosn before they debuted their PitchFX data. Perhaps I should do an update.

I guess we can agree to disagree for the moment! Hopefully a more targeted study will give us a definitive answer!

philosofool
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philosofool

Seems like successful hackers need good contact skills too, though, right?

Also, is there a danger that a history of hacking predicts collapse? I worry that as bat speed slows, these guys sudden fall apart because their swinging strike rate ballons.

Also, I’m worried about selection bias in your regression model. If your PA cut off is high, you’ve implicitly selected good players who might have other underlying skills that compensate for a bad approach. Are you sure that the model will work for Miguel Olivo too?

Mike Silver
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Mike Silver
As for selection bias, I think the cutoff for this study was either 400 PAs or 450 PAs. It was some time ago so I don’t remember off hand. Is there a selection bias? Absolutely. However, the MLB minor league system makes it pretty much impossible to commission a study that does not include some sort of substantial selection bias. However, for the fantasy purposes for which this analysis was designed, the sample fits fine. This analysis was designed to be applied to fantasy hitters—players who already have made the MLB and shown the requisite contact skills deemed necessary for… Read more »
Mark Himmelstein
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Mark Himmelstein
Definitely looking forward to any further study into this subject. I just wanted to add to the back and forth above, the one potential issue I think you’re missing is the potential tie in between increased swings and increased swings and misses (and potentially foul balls as well I suppose). If it was just an issue of HR/FB and BABIP, I would agree with your rationale, but contact IS important. As to the point about taking pitches inside the zone, while that’s surely true, the ratio between pitches swung at inside and outside the zone would be upset, and the… Read more »
chuck
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chuck

i would like to see hamilton’s average when swinging at the first pitch.  albert belle had a career first pitch average of like .380 and he was a hacker.

Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Speaking strictly as a Mets fan for a second, I don’t know if there was ever an elite hitter who let more good strikes go than Mike Piazza. Ironically, he wasn’t a Frank Thomas walker type, but I recall that he was once identified as having the lowest swing rate on 3-0 pitches in the league. I think there were entire seasons when he didn’t swing 3-0. The list of least frequent 3-0 swingers was like a who’s who of terrible hitters, and then the greatest offensive catcher of all time, and one of the best hitters of his generation.… Read more »
DA
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DA

…i meant that the book was indeed out.

This is what happens you flirt with double negatives, kids.

Brock
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Brock

Does Juan Francisco fall into this category? He’s somewhat interesting now that he’ll be playing 3rd base for Chipper….

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